Disney’s award-winning musical The Lion King has finally arrived at Manchester’s Palace Theatre and has been so successful that the residency has been extended, again, so hunt down your tickets quickly before the hyenas snatch the remains!
The story follows Simba (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje), a lion cub destined to become king after his father Mufasa (Jean-Luc Guizonne) is killed by his treacherous uncle, Scar (Richard Hurst). Blaming himself for his father’s death, Simba runs away, meeting witty meerkat Timon (Alan Mchale) and flatulent warthog Pumba (Carl Sanderson), who teach him their carefree ways, before his love, Nala (Nokwanda Khuzwayo), and wise baboon Rafiki (Thandazile Soni) call him back to reclaim his rightful place on the throne and in the circle of life.
I awaited the show with excited anticipation for such a purrrfect theatrical reinterpretation of one of the best animated movies ever made. I was slightly apprehensive about how realistic the animal characters would feel but was immediately overwhelmed by the realism from the range of colourful costumes and makeup designs, realistic animalistic movements and interpretive dance (also used in more ‘violent’ moments), all performed with such breath-taking fluidity.
The show features intricately designed puppets of cheetahs, hyenas (Rebecca Omogbehin, Simon Trinder and Owain Rhys Davies), meerkats, warthogs, and hornbills, mobiles of flying birds and buzzards, stilted giraffes and enormous elephants, projections, shadow puppets, and lion and buffalo costumes.
Even the grass was occasionally transformed into costumes to ensure that nature moved with liveliness, or it was used to hide certain puppetry effects, or as a backdrop, dragged slowly as a character moved in the opposite direction.
‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ added more abstract representations of animals, including giraffes leaning over the audience from the stage, animals ridden by the cubs, and a dash of colour and fun. An especially impressive effect was used in Scar’s costume with a mask that had a frame behind the neck allowing it to move according to the actor’s stance, creating a prowling and realistic version of scar, which at times covered the human actor entirely in an unnerving but brilliant effect as he skulked in elephant-bone structures.
I cried a total of three times in the most impressive of scenes. The first occasion was during ‘Circle of Life’, which brought so much life and immersion to the audience who gasped as the musical harmonies built, animal puppets were slowly brought upon all sections of the stage, and every space of the theatre was used, including the aisles, for surprising closeup displays of the puppetry of elephants and more.
Musical instruments were spread across the orchestra pit, singers were placed onstage and at the sides of the audience, and drummers were placed in the boxes – which added a sense of immersion that drew the audience into a jaw-dropping experience. Even the staired structure of Pride Rock and the iconic lifting of Simba were incredible sights to behold, earning immediate applause from the audience. It’s an emotional, awe-inspiring, and immersive experience unlike any other.
Particularly amazing puppetry was seen in Zazu (Matthew Forbes), the life-size Timon, Pumba and his extendable tongue, and a fascinating cheetah attached through a series of wires to each part of the actor’s body to create seamlessly graceful movements. The giraffe and elephant were also spectacular, with massive and grand structures that seemed almost impossible to physically exist. It was as if each person and creature were separate entities, performing together with vivacity.
Whilst every moment gripped me, one of the most impactful moments was the tear-jerking stampede scene, which seemed an almost impossible feat to take to recreate on stage… boy, was I wrong!
Scar’s now infamous betrayal was portrayed with a layering of screens to resemble the canyon structure before shadow buffalos came to life, quickly moving down the canyon side towards the levitating Simba (seen hanging on a tree branch) when the buffalos finally reach the main stage as tribal masked dancers.
Mufasa climbs the cliffside screens before Scar appears from above, and Mufasa falls, harnessed in a cacophony of lights and screams, followed by a brilliantly-portrayed young Simba and later lionesses, alongside Rafiki, who pine over his death. This moment was all the more heart-wrenching due to the perfect portrayal of Simba and Mufasa’s relationship as light-hearted, loving, well-humoured and protective, with playful antics as well as serious reflections on mortality in ‘They Live in You/He Lives in You (Reprise)’, featuring a grand version of the Mufasa storm cloud which looms lovingly over Simba.
Beyond the spectacles of set and costumes (produced by Richard Hudson, Julie Taymor, and Michael Curry), amazing acting and interpretive dances, the performance never missed a beat, always understanding how to lighten or dramatisise the more emotional moments to effectively impact the viewer, yet able to simultaneously balance these emotions with puns, fourth wall-breaks, and region-based jokes, for instance, Zazu stating that the curtains “look like something from Bury Market” had the audience in stitches.
The musical introduces new songs, including The Lion King 2’s ‘He Lives in You’, as well as songs created especially for the musical, including: Simba’s power ballad ‘Endless Nights’, Nala’s reflective ‘Shadowland’, the hyena trio’s ‘Chow Down’, and the ensembles gospel-like ‘One by One’. These perfectly fit with the songs translated from the original movie and added extra emotional reflection of each character’s inner turmoil, thoughts and unexpressed feelings.
The stage musical also introduces a blend of different song styles and cultural influences, ranging from Japanese to African, in their costume representations and more. Indeed, each costume represents something about Africa or the character’s mannerisms; the circular structure of Mufasa’s mask representing the sun and his enforcement of the circle of life, unlike his sharp-quilled brother Scar, whilst Rafiki represents an African healer, adorned with medicinal bottles and shells.
My personal favourite song addition was adult Simba’s ‘Endless Nights’ and both versions of ‘They/He Lives in You’ which were sung with such raw emotion, especially by Simba. Saying this, every singer from the ensemble to the main cast was phenomenal in their dancing and singing roles, and it would be impossible to choose just one performer as a favourite. Even the child actors were astounding in their roles.
One of the most fun moments of the musical was always going to be ‘Hakuna Matata’. The transition from young to adult Simba was fun, recycling Simba’s iconic Tarzan swing from the movie before the interval. Every scene transitioned between characters, times and places with such grace that it felt so effective and life-filled; this experience is the closest anyone will ever feel to the world of The Lion King.
I was overwhelmed by the intricate attention to detail and emotion that paid respect to an animated classic with its own flare and charisma, potentially even beating the movie! The cast should be full of pride at their achievements, creating a lifelike and immersive Pride Lands experience for viewers of all ages to enjoy.
With over 150 people onstage and backstage needed to maintain the show, and 230-odd puppets used, and the use of several languages, it is a show of dedication and love, deeply rooted in the animation as a love letter to culture and music. It is a musical spectacular which unsurprisingly saw the whole audience united in a standing ovation.
The Lion King is at the Palace Theatre until March 11 2023. After this huge run, the UK tour visits Sunderland Empire from March 16 to May 6 and Birmingham Hippodrome from July 6 to September 16, with more venues to be announced.